Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Formula Foul

Lately I’ve been pondering the easy way we sometimes cast judgment.

We do it so often it’s a reflex. You see a recognizable dispute playing out, feelings hurt, conflict escalating, be it political, interpersonal, work-related, whatever, and when the players involved take on a sympathetic shape and their actions resonate emotionally our biases quickly tell us who’s to blame and who’s the victim.

And we’ll hang onto that even if we’re completely wrong.

All this came to mind recently while I watched an NBA playoff game with my 20-year-old son and became frustrated anew with the “formula fouls.” The formula foul is a term I conjured years ago for lazy, reflexive foul calls in the NBA.

Sometimes fouls are called because a foul was actually committed. But nearly as often fouls are called simply because of who moved at a certain moment while someone else moved nearby. That’s how a hard elbow to the chest amid a complicated scrum under the basket isn’t a foul, but a defender’s pinky grazing a shooter’s wrist out along the three-point arc IS. Why? Because that hand to hand combat under the basket takes thought to decipher – though it has real impact on events. The pinky grazing the shooters wrist is easy to see and understand, so though it has little impact on the moment, the whistle blows.

A series of formulas, like recognizable dance steps are agreed to be fouls in the culture of NBA referees.

And once the whistle blows the defender is incredulous. He won’t raise his hand to accept the call in the old tradition of the game so scorekeepers can keep track of foul tallies. He argues with the ref as if he thinks he could elicit a reversal of the judgment. But that ain’t gonna happen. Never does.

We’re all referees everyday of our lives and we all call our fair share of formula fouls. Our biases regarding who’s at fault in moments of trauma can be so deeply engrained we question them as little as we question the sensations of hot and cold. They just are what they are.

If there’s conflict between a man and a woman, most of us have an inkling who’s at fault before we even know the facts. And we’ll look for facts to confirm our bias and ignore the ones that don’t. If it’s a white, English-speaking citizen vs. an dark-skinned immigrant with an accent, a boss vs. an employee, a senior citizen vs. a teenager, a well-dressed businessman vs. a homeless bum in tattered clothes, in moments of conflict we quickly I.D. the victim and the perpetrator. And it doesn’t matter if there’s no victim at all, but just a couple people struggling with the complexities of life. When the shit goes down, we look to hug one and point a finger at the other.

True as that may be, a friend reminded me recently that if we’re going to enjoy any peace in life perhaps we have to find the grace to relinquish our fate to the overwhelming power of bias.

On a recent evening I sat in my friend’s living room drinking beer. Bill and his wife and I chatted about music, writing, books, and politics. After his wife went to bed we drank another beer, then sipped some scotch.

At some point I turned to my familiar gripes. My complaints about the formula fouls called on me in the drama of my personal life began to roll off my tongue in their familiar rhythmic cadence. Bill crossed his legs, folded his arms across his chest and fixed a stare on me that parents save for a come-to-Jesus-moment with a petulant child.

He looked me hard in the eye and said flatly, “Kurt, you’re a prideful person, and you’re gonna have to let go of some of that.”

It was like he’d thrown a firecracker in my face. My ears rang a bit from the concussion.

Bill went on, “You’re clutching your pride to your chest while people are trying to tear it away from you. But you need to let go. Let them take it. And let them go, too. Make something else of yourself in its place. Reinvent yourself. Let go!”

In moments like this two familiar traits emerge in me: 1) I have an impeccable ear for recognizing good advice when I hear it, and 2) a stubborn habit of ignoring it.

But I am trying to do better. Failing sometimes, but trying.

I know Bill is right. When you can’t change the outcome of the judgment it doesn’t matter how the blame is laid. Maybe it only matters how you take it.

I know I need to learn to raise my hand and take the formula foul calls in my own life with a greater measure of acceptance. There are people keeping score and I can’t stop that and people passing judgments that I can never reverse. I need to stop arguing with the referees in my life, need to let them tally, and let them go, and reinvent that part of me.